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Burden v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Tacoma

October 5, 2017

BLAIR BURDEN, on behalf of Judith Lynn Burden, [1]Plaintiff,
v.
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.

          ORDER REVERSING AND REMANDING DEFENDANT'S DECISION TO DENY BENEFITS

          Ronald B. Leighton United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff Burden's Complaint [Dkt. 6] for review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of her applications for disability insurance and supplemental security income benefits.

         Burden suffered from degenerative disc disease of the lumbar spine, heart disease, affective disorder, anxiety disorder, and substance abuse disorder. See Dkt. 9, Administrative Record 24. She applied for disability insurance and SSI benefits in March 2010, alleging she became disabled beginning in June 2008. See AR 21. Those applications were denied upon initial administrative review and on reconsideration. See id. After separate hearings, Burden twice received decisions finding her not to be disabled that were remanded by the Appeals Council. See AR 21-22. A third hearing was held before Administrative Law Judge Wayne N. Araki in June 2015. See AR 22. Burden, represented by a non-attorney representative, appeared and testified, as did a vocational expert. See AR 162-216.

         The ALJ again determined Burden not to be disabled. See AR 18-48. The Appeals Council denied Burden's request for review, making the ALJ's decision the final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security. See AR 6-12; 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.981, 416.1481. In March 2017, Burden filed a complaint in this Court seeking judicial review of the Commissioner's final decision. See Dkt. 6.

         Burden argues that the Commissioner's decision to deny benefits should be reversed and remanded for an immediate award of benefits or for further administrative proceedings because the ALJ erred in evaluating the medical evidence in the record and Burden's testimony, and therefore in finding at step five of the sequential evaluation process that Burden was capable of performing work available in the national economy.

         The Commissioner argues that the ALJ did not err in evaluating the medical evidence or Burden's testimony, so the ALJ's finding that Burden was not disabled was supported by substantial evidence and should be affirmed.

         DISCUSSION

         The Commissioner's determination that a claimant is not disabled must be upheld by the Court if the Commissioner applied the “proper legal standards” and if “substantial evidence in the record as a whole supports” that determination. See Hoffman v. Heckler, 785 F.2d 1423, 1425 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Batson v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 359 F.3d 1190, 1193 (9th Cir. 2004); Carr v. Sullivan, 772 F.Supp. 522, 525 (E.D. Wash. 1991) (“A decision supported by substantial evidence will, nevertheless, be set aside if the proper legal standards were not applied in weighing the evidence and making the decision.”) (citing Brawner v. Sec'y of Health and Human Services, 839 F.2d 432, 433 (9th Cir. 1987)).

         Substantial evidence is “such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Richardson v. Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971) (citation omitted); see also Batson, 359 F.3d at 1193 (“[T]he Commissioner's findings are upheld if supported by inferences reasonably drawn from the record.”). “The substantial evidence test requires that the reviewing court determine” whether the Commissioner's decision is “supported by more than a scintilla of evidence, although less than a preponderance of the evidence is required.” Sorenson v. Weinberger, 514 F.2d 1112, 1119 n.10 (9th Cir. 1975). “If the evidence admits of more than one rational interpretation, ” the Commissioner's decision must be upheld. Allen v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 577, 579 (9th Cir. 1984) (“Where there is conflicting evidence sufficient to support either outcome, we must affirm the decision actually made.”) (quoting Rhinehart v. Finch, 438 F.2d 920, 921 (9th Cir. 1971)).[2]

         I. The Medical Evidence in the Record

         The ALJ determines credibility and resolves ambiguities and conflicts in the medical evidence. See Reddick v. Chater, 157 F.3d 715, 722 (9th Cir. 1998). Where the medical evidence in the record is not conclusive, “questions of credibility and resolution of conflicts” are solely the functions of the ALJ. Sample v. Schweiker, 694 F.2d 639, 642 (9th Cir. 1982). In such cases, “the ALJ's conclusion must be upheld.” Morgan v. Comm'r, Soc. Sec. Admin., 169 F.3d 595, 601 (9th Cir. 1999). Determining whether inconsistencies in the medical evidence “are material (or are in fact inconsistencies at all) and whether certain factors are relevant to discount” the opinions of medical experts “falls within this responsibility.” Id. at 603.

         In resolving questions of credibility and conflicts in the evidence, an ALJ's findings “must be supported by specific, cogent reasons.” Reddick, 157 F.3d at 725. The ALJ can do this “by setting out a detailed and thorough summary of the facts and conflicting clinical evidence, stating his interpretation thereof, and making findings.” Id. The ALJ also may draw inferences “logically flowing from the evidence.” Sample, 694 F.2d at 642. Further, the Court may draw “specific and legitimate inferences from the ALJ's opinion.” Magallanes v. Bowen, 881 F.2d 747, 755 (9th Cir. 1989).

         Burden argues that the ALJ erred by failing to fully incorporate the opinion of state agency medical consultant Nathaniel Arcega, M.D. See Dkt. 11 at 6. The Court agrees.

         A “[s]tate agency medical and psychological consultant” may be treated as a “highly qualified” physician with expertise in evaluating “medical issues in disability claims.” Social Security Ruling 96-6p, 1996 WL 374180 *2. Dr. Arcega reviewed the record and found that, among other limitations, Burden could stand or walk for at least two hours in an eight-hour workday but could not stand or walk for about six hours in an eight-hour workday. See AR 751. The ALJ gave significant weight to ...


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